Harford schools chief backs full day pre-K, provided state funds it

ANNAPOLIS – Harford County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan told Harford County state legislators Friday she supports an expanded pre-kindergarten program, provided the state pays for it.

During a meeting with local delegates and senators, Canavan said she thinks a full-time pre-K program is important for children in Harford County because it will create a level educational environment for all children. She said pre-K programs give children exposure to academics, good social behavior and decision making skills.

"The reality is that we hold our children back," Canavan said. "Children can do so much more. We need to expose them and give them the opportunity to learn, and the earlier the better."

In his final State of the State address Thursday, Gov. Martin O'Malley said the General Assembly has "the ability to advance universal pre-K."

According to the Maryland State Department of Education website, pre-K is "a state funded program for 4-year-old children from families that are economically disadvantaged or homeless." It is up to local systems to set up their own pre-K programs within certain basic state guidelines. Because the slots in the public school pre-K programs are limited, however, many families rely on private programs.

Children whose families don't meet income requirements can be accepted if there are additional slots, according to state guidelines.

"To date in the state of Maryland, pre-kindergarten is not mandatory; it is an application process based on age eligible children and the economic status of the family," the Harford County Public Schools website states, noting that HCPS "does not have pre-kindergarten in every elementary school. Children receiving services prior to pre-kindergarten through HCPS are not guaranteed enrollment."

This school year, 19 of 34 elementary schools have pre-K programs, with a total of 21 pre-K programs in the county, as two buildings have two programs, according to Lindsay Bilodeau, communications specialist for HCPS.

Bilodeau said there were 674 pre-K students enrolled in Sept. 2013, but added that "pre-K enrollment fluctuates throughout the year with student mobility."

Harford and other counties don't receive direct state funding to run their pre-K programs. The money comes out of the school system's general allotment of state and county funds, Canavan explained to the legislators. Three school board members also attended the meeting.

"Currently, we are providing pre-K, but the money we are using to fund the pre-K program right now is actually money out of the funding that we have," Canavan said. "The pre-K program was not really been funded. It is an unfunded mandate."

Canavan said a full-day pre-K program in Harford County is a "big ticket item," which will require more funding from the state, although she said she does not know how much additional funding it would require to transition Harford's pre-K into a full-day program.

School board member Alysson L. Krchnavy said HCPS needs additional funding to continue to support its pre-K program.

"When I worked as a substitute teacher, I saw kids reading and doing math in pre-K," Krchnavy said. "It is important children get those opportunities early on. It makes a real difference."

School Board member James Thornton said HCPS does not need anymore unfunded mandates handed down by the state and the school board is asking for relief.

More vo-tech courses

HCPS continues to take a "comprehensive" look at expanded vocational-technical education opportunities for students in Harford County, Canavan said.

Canavan said HCPS put together a task force six-months ago to research the course offerings at Harford Technical High School and other tech high schools around the state, in an effort to determine the cost of establishing a second vo-tech center in the county.

"We don't know if we can fund another vo-tech school," Canavan said to the delegation. "But maybe we can offer satellite courses."

Canavan said HCPS is thinking "outside of the box" to create vo-tech programs without asking for millions of dollars in funding.

Del. Richard K. Impallaria, who represents western Harford, said members of the legislative delegation should be invited to be a part of such task force instead of getting a briefing at the end.

"We don't want kids leaving high school and selling popcorn at the movies," Impallaria said. "We want them to leave high school with the basics of heating, plumbing and air conditioning."

Prior to the start of the legislative session, several of the Harford delegation members said finding more vocational education opportunities would be a priority in Annapolis this year.

Del. Mary-Dulany James, who represents southern Harford and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, is chairing a legislative run task force to discuss vo-tech opportunities in the county.

Superintendent search

School Board President Nancy Reynolds told the legislators the search for a new superintendent is continuing.

When asked by the legislators about their timetable, Reynolds said the board could make an offer to a perspective superintendent as early as February but has until the end of the school year to make the hire.

Reynolds said the board's Iowa-based search firm, Ray and Associates, has concluded focus groups to collect community input that school officials had said earlier would be used in fashioning the job description.

The board had planned to meet with the firm earlier in the week to discuss the search; however, the meeting was postponed because of the bad weather and will be rescheduled in the next 10 days, Reynolds said.

Canavan, who was appointed interim superintendent for this school year following last summer's departure of former superintendent Robert Tomback, has not said publicly if she is a candidate for the permanent appointment.

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